Bernadette Robinson’s solo performance in Pennsylvania Avenue is a reprise, of sorts, of her 2010 show Songs for Nobodies, with the same creative team: writer Joanna Murray-Smith, director Simon Phillips and musical director Ian McDonald. Picking up the same theme of ‘nobodies’ brushing up against famous divas, this production is a more ambitious undertaking in musical theatre.
Staged in a larger Melbourne Theatre Company venue, at the Sumner Theatre, Shaun Gurton’s set replicates the Blue Room in the East Wing of the White House, where Harper Clements, Robinson’s fictitious character, a girl from Thunderbolt, Georgia, is employed on the lower rung of the Social Office hierarchy and, after forty years at the White House, is packing up her boxes to leave.
With background footage, provided by video designer Chris More, of pivotal events in the forty years from 1962, Harper tells us her story. She has seen eight presidents come and go, and entertainers, from Barbra Streisand to Aretha Franklin, perform for them and their guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Their songs are used to illustrate historical events and movements, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Robinson segues between her role of Harper, her renditions of the songs and her impersonations of the presidents, their cronies, and her boss in the Social Office. Chameleon-like, Robinson switches deftly between characters in mid-sentence. It is a virtuoso performance, full of fun and warmth. Murray-Smith has written a monologue that gives full rein to her own satire and wit and to Robinson’s gift for mimicry and huge talent as a singer. But the focus this time is on the play, rather than the music. Unlike Songs for Nobodies, which was a series of portraits of several ‘nobodies’ and complete songs by the divas they met, Pennsylvania Avenue is a play about one ‘nobody’, punctuated by musical vignettes, often just one verse of a song made famous by the White House entertainers.
This is not the perfect showcase for Robinson’s talents. Director Simon Phillips, who has come back to the MTC especially for this collaboration, has chosen to move away from the intimacy of the first show and use broader dramatic brushstrokes. This challenges Robinson as an actor. She has to pace across the wide stage, sometimes with a box in her arms, to indicate the busy nature of her job. Her inner life, which is as the heart of the drama, is too slowly revealed for the emotional connection between Harper and the songs to have its impact on the audience. And cutting off the songs, when Robinson is in full vocal flight, is a crime. It is her power as singer, not just to imitate the singer, but to inhabit the song, that is Robinson’s greatest gift.
The most serious fault is in the costuming. Harper has a platinum blonde wig and is dressed in wide-legged pants and loose shirt, in neutral shades. Robinson’s slight body is swamped, and the expressiveness of her arms and shoulders, as she interprets the divas, is lost. A little black dress would have been perfect.
However, it is a fascinating and entertaining story, and Robinson’s talents are marvellous. Ian McDonald’s four-piece band, with keyboards, reeds, drums and guitar, provide a fine textural accompaniment to Robinson’s divine voice. It is worth the ticket just to see her perform Sarah Vaughan’s ‘Cry me a river’ or Eartha Kitt’s ‘If you go away’. Other highlights are an aria from Carmen by Maria Callas and an odd cameo of Bob Dylan singing Barry McGuire’s song ‘The eve of destruction.’
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 8 November to 20 December 2014
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm;Wed 1pm & 8pm;Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800